Politics and the Media: Upholding the fourth pillar of
Opinions / October 13, 2010
By Paul Li
Sept. 28 marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of Former Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau. A “Champion of the Canadian federalism” to some, “most illustrious and influential proponent of multiculturalism as a Canadian identity” to others, and even “well-to-do hippie and draft dodger”, his fingerprints can still be felt over considerable portions of present day Canada.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of relations between politics and the media. Flash back exactly 40 years – October 13th, 1970- and picture then Prime Minister Trudeau getting off his car, and being intercepted by the press. The impromptu interview lasts a few minutes during which the reporter banters with the Prime Minister, questioning the Government’s actions reducing civil liberties. One of Trudeau’s answers has become a catchphrase ever since: “Well, just watch me”.
Now just a minute here. Did a politician just say those four words out loud? On record? Even worse, on camera?
It is hard to see politicians be so candid nowadays, unless it is in tightly controlled situations where the result can be screened and “contained”. Certainly not after they get out of a car. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’d be hard for the media today to reach high ranking politicians in a similar manner. If anything, whenever the media gets to politicians today under uncontrolled circumstances, the two words that tend to come out of their mouths: “No comment” or the more verbose “We shall be releasing a statement shortly”.
Sadly, Canada is becoming a basket case scenario. The press’ access to the Prime Minister is strictly limited, and only hand-picked reporters are allowed to ask questions. Cabinet ministers, let alone other federal employees, are forbidden from speaking to media without prior authorization from the Prime Minister’s Office. Nothing gets out without a carefully considered stamp of approval.
The problem is not contained at Federal levels, sadly. Just recently, the Wilderness Committee made a Freedom of Information request to the BC Government, seeking information with regards to budget cuts to provincial park rangers- sounds innocent, yes? The answer was that the request would be processed for the tidy fee of $9,000. Guess the information wasn’t free after all.
How did things end up this way? True, we can all blame the arrogant, power hungry and overzealous politicians for this change. Yet, in a day where a single on camera… squeal… can doom careers (Howard Dean, anyone?), or a properly executed internet campaign can propel a relative unknown to the White House- perhaps some politicians are just scared of the media. Politico pointed out last week that, save for Mitt Romney, every major potential U.S. presidential candidate from the Republican Party is now a paid contributor for Fox News. Want an interview with Sarah Palin? Mike Huckabee? Newt Gingrich? Ask Fox News first- and get approval- or no interview.
Maybe we should blame the media and their “editorially-distorting filters”, as Chomsky once put it- corporate interests in other words. But perhaps we are all to fault as well. The media can survive only as long as people are watching their programs, reading their newspapers, checking their websites. If they survive it is because we, as a collective, have allowed it to do so by accepting distorted content and allowing ourselves to be spoon fed beliefs, arguments, “facts”.
If a democracy can be measured by the strength of its free media, then our democracies have been deteriorating. The media exists as a guarantor of the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from oppression through ignorance. It is our one great tool to counter the tendency to secrecy and back-room deals that have ever pervaded human organizations.
A free press- the fourth pillar of democracy- requires active participation by all. Actively supporting independent media; actively demanding nothing but the highest standards of ethics and veracity; actively demanding that the elected governments be transparent to their constituents. We owe to ourselves nothing less.
Paul Li is a student of Economics and Political Science. A member of the Kwantlen Political Science Society, he is a faithful adherent to the words of one wise man, who said “Everybody has a hidden agenda. Except me”.